Neanderthals sang like sopranos

Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News, Tuesday, 15 March 2005


Neanderthals spoke in a high-pitched, sing-song voice, says one researcher. But not everyone is convinced (Image: iStockphoto)

Neanderthals had strong, yet high-pitched, voices that the stocky hominins used for both singing and speaking, says a UK researcher.


The theory suggests that Neanderthals, who once lived in Europe from around 200,000 to 35,000 BC, were intelligent and socially complex.


It also indicates that although Neanderthals were likely to have represented a unique species, they had more in common with modern humans than previously thought.


Stephen Mithen, a professor of archaeology at the University of Reading, made the determination after studying the skeletal remains of Neanderthals.


His work coincides with last week's release of the first complete, articulated Neanderthal skeleton.


Information about the new skeleton is published in the current issue of the journal The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist.


Mithen compared related skeletal Neanderthal data with that of monkeys and other members of the ape family, including modern humans.


In a recent University College London seminar, Mithen explained that Neanderthal anatomy suggests the early hominins had the physical ability to communicate with pitch and melody.


He believes they probably used these abilities in a form of communication that was half spoken and half sung.


Mithen says he hopes people who are interested in his research will read his upcoming book The singing Neanderthal: the origin of language, music, body and mind, which will be published in June.


A head and neck for singing?


Jeffrey Laitman is professor and director of anatomy and functional morphology, as well as otolaryngology, the study of the ear, nose, and throats, at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.


He is also an expert on Neanderthals, particularly in terms of analysing their head and neck regions.


"My curiosity is peaked by Mithen's theory that Neanderthals sang and had feminine-toned voices. But I think these attributes would be difficult to prove even with the recent Neanderthal reconstruction," Laitman says.


"No Neanderthal larynx exists because the tissue does not fossilise. We have to reconstruct it."


Laitman says he and other researchers often use existing portions of Neanderthal, and other early hominin skulls to build the voice box area.


Through such work, he has learned that Neanderthals, Australopithecines and other prehistoric hominins had a larynx positioned high in the throat.


"The structure is comparable to what we see in monkeys and apes today," Laitman says. "Apes do have language and culture, but the sounds they make are more limited than those produced by humans."


Due to the Neanderthal's impressive brain size, which was larger than the grey matter of most modern humans, Laitman emphatically believes they had linguistic abilities.


"They were not mute brutes just because they were not exactly like us," he says. "Neanderthals probably made different sounds because, in part, they could not have used all of the vowels we do. For example, they could not have said 'ooh', 'ahh' or 'eee'."


Since Neanderthals had distinctive nasal, ear and sinus anatomical features, Laitman believes they were specialised for respiration, which would have given them a 'nasally' voice.


It is unclear why the larynx of modern humans dropped lower in the throat around a million and a half years ago.


Laitman thinks the change might have been linked to desired extra air intake through the mouth for short-burst running.


A sing-song debate


Associate Professor Janet Monge, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and another Neanderthal expert, is sceptical about the new singing Neanderthal theory.


"[But] if we sing, then I am sure that all very modern looking ancient humans could too," she says.


She says that language and singing do not use the same neurosubstrates, so she questions how a link could be made between the two, especially since in humans, language can be melodious and high-pitched without literally moving into full song.


But Monge adds, "Certainly linking language to Neanderthals makes them more like modern humans."


Laitman believes Neanderthals were a separate species that modern humans actually helped to kill off.


"Their ear, nose, and throat anatomy would have made them very susceptible to respiratory infections and to middle ear infections," he says.


"We know they traded and were in contact with modern humans, so Neanderthals would have been in harm's way for germs.


"In the days before cures like penicillin, illness could have flown through their populations very quickly and contributed to their demise."



Creationists take their fight to the really big screen

US row forces southern Imax cinemas to shun films on evolution

Robin McKie, science editor

Sunday March 20, 2005

The Observer


They are the epitome of safe family entertainment, renowned for lavish animations, exquisitely filmed scenes of natural grandeur and utterly tame scripts. But Imax films have suddenly found themselves catapulted into controversy, thanks to their occasional use of the dreaded E-word: evolution.

In several US states, Imax cinemas - including some at science museums - are refusing to show movies that mention the subject or suggest that Earth's origins do not conform with biblical descriptions.


Films include Cosmic Voyage, an animated journey through the universe; Galapagos, a documentary about the islands where Darwin made some of his most important observations; and Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, an underwater epic about the bizarre creatures that flourish near ocean vents.


In most southern states, theatre officials found recent test screenings of several of these films triggered accusations from viewers that the films were blasphemous.


Carol Murray, marketing director of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in Texas, said audience members who had watched Volcanoes had commented 'I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact', or 'I don't agree with their presentation of human existence.'


As a result, the science museum had decided not to screen the film. 'If it is not going to draw a crowd and it is going to create controversy, from a marketing point of view, I cannot make a recommendation,' Murray told the New York Times yesterday.


Superficially, the decision affects only a dozen or so cinemas. But it could have a profound knock-on effect across the world because of the high cost of producing Imax films.


They require special cameras and expensive projectors. The economics of Imax film-making are therefore very tight, and the actions of these southern Imax cinemas will only exacerbate the problem. It is expected that producers will be far less likely to make films that could offend fundamentalists, as the loss of venues in the southern states could be enough to turn profit to loss.


'It is going to be hard for our film-makers to continue to make unfettered documentaries when they know that 10 per cent of the market will reject them,' said Joe DeAmicis, vice-president of the California Science Centre in Los Angeles.


This point was emphasised by Bayley Silleck, who wrote and directed Cosmic Voyage. Many institutions across America were coming under pressure about issues relating to natural selection. 'They have to be extremely careful as to how they present anything relating to evolution,' he said.


A spokesman for the Science Museum in London described the development as worrying: 'It is a very tight market in the Imax business and we would be extremely disappointed if this sort of pressure led to a narrowing of the market for popular Imax films. These films are very popular with families.'


The decision has also dismayed James Cameron, the Hollywood director who made the Imax film Aliens of the Deep and who was one of the producers of Volcanoes. He said he was 'surprised and somewhat offended' that people were sensitive to the references to evolution in Volcanoes.


He also revealed that objections had been made to parts of Aliens of the Deep, but these had remained in the final cut. 'It seems to be a new phenomenon, obviously symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science,' he said.




Safety First for Re-Erecting Axum Obelisk: Experts Warn

The Daily Monitor (Addis Ababa), March 15, 2005, Posted to the web March 15, 2005

Addis Ababa


Italian experts working on the return of the Axum Obelisk from Italy to its original place have come up with a new controversy saying it could be dangerous to re-erect the obelisk exactly where it was before being looted by Italy in 1973, though facing some stern disagreement from Ethiopian engineers.


Dr. Rodolfo Fattovic, Professor of Archaeology and Antiquities and leader of Italian archaeological mission to Axum and Jim Williams, UNESCO African Desk Sector of Culture both share the idea that re-erecting the obelisk in its original place could be very dangerous. "The whole are is very fragile; there could be underground chambers around where it is expected to stand, and besides the whole area could be very sensitive to hold a 150 ton obelisk," they stated.


"We will conduct a site inspection in April by taking x-rays, radar and electromagnetic pulses to see if there are no underground chambers, which we believe there are," Williams added.


Engineer Tadele Bitul senior member of the committee for the return of Axum obelisk on his part contested the idea by saying that the area was good enough to hold the obelisk and that it had been proven so.


"Of course we all want the obelisk to be safely returned, but we believe that it can and will be re-erected without any problem at all. We were there to see the sight and with several experts and we have found out that it is possible to do so. We know that there are no underground chambers under the erecting area." he added.


It was also stated that the obelisk, arriving in three different parts should be re-erected by the end of the rainy season.


"Assuming that everything goes according to schedule, by the end of April the obelisk should be here and since the rainy season is looming, we believe that the re-erecting should end by the end of Autumn," Guido La Tella, Ambassador of Italy to Ethiopia said.


Dr. Kassaye Begashaw, Head of Archaeology Unit, Addis Ababa University added that the issue being a very sensitive one, re-erecting the obelisk in a different place could also be seen as rewriting history over again.



Archaeologist discovers ancient ships in Egypt

By Tim Stoddard


Kathryn Bard, a CAS associate professor of archaeology, recently discovered the first ancient remains of Egyptian seafaring ships. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


Kathryn Bard had “the best Christmas ever” this past December when she discovered the well-preserved timbers and riggings of pharaonic seafaring ships inside two man-made caves on Egypt’s Red Sea coast. They are the first pieces ever recovered from Egyptian seagoing vessels, and along with hieroglyphic inscriptions found near one of the caves, they promise to shed light on an elaborate network of ancient Red Sea trade.


Bard, a CAS associate professor of archaeology, and her former student Chen Sian Lim (CAS’01) had been shoveling sand for scarcely an hour on their first day of excavation on a parched bluff rising from the shore at Wadi Gawasis when a fist-sized hole appeared in the hillside. “I stuck my hand in, and that was the entrance to the first cave,” Bard says. “Things like that don’t happen very often in archaeology.”


Led by Bard and Italian archaeologist Rodolfo Fattovich, the team uncovered the rectangular entrance to a second cave, constructed with cedar beams and blocks of limestone that were former ship anchors. Inside they found a network of larger rooms and an assortment of nautical items, among them ropes, a wooden bowl, and a mesh bag. She also found two curved cedar planks that were probably the steering oars on a 70-foot-long ship from Queen Hatshepsut’s famous 15th-century b.c. naval expedition to Punt, a trade destination somewhere in the southern Red Sea region. Buried in sand outside the second cave, Bard found a piece of rope still tied in what she believes is a sailor’s knot. “It must have come from a ship,” she says. “It couldn’t have been used for anything else.” Fragments of pottery scattered near the artifacts date to Egypt’s early 18th dynasty, circa 1500 b.c., around the time Hatshepsut reigned.


She also discovered several stelae (pronounced steely), limestone slabs about the size of small modern tombstones, installed in niches outside the second cave. Most were blank, but Bard found one, face down in the sand, with the cartouche of King Amenemhat III, who ruled about 1800 b.c. The text recounts two expeditions led by government officials to Punt and Bia-Punt, whose location is uncertain. “That this stela has been preserved with very little damage for that long is really unusual,” she says, “and the preservation of organic material in the caves is truly remarkable. I’ve worked in Egypt since 1976, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”


Bard’s colleagues share her enthusiasm. “I think it is a very exciting discovery,” says John Baines, an Egyptologist on the faculty of oriental studies at Oxford University. “People have tended to assume that the Egyptians didn’t do a tremendous amount of long-distance travel because very few remains of these sites have been found.” Based on texts discovered over a century ago, reseachers have known that Egyptians mounted naval expeditions to Punt as far back as the Old Kingdom (2686–2125 b.c.). In Punt they acquired gold, ebony, elephant ivory, leopard skins, and exotic animals such as baboons that were kept as pets, along with the frankincense necessary for religious rituals.


The discovery is shedding light on other aspects of the Red Sea trade. “It was not known until we found this stela that King Amenemhat III had sent any expeditions to Punt,” Bard says. “That makes this an important historical text.” Her team also found fragments of pottery inside the small cave that her Italian colleagues believe originated in Yemen, which suggests the Egyptians either sailed further than had been previously thought or were part of a more complex web of trade.


Sailing to Punt required a tremendous investment of manpower. Egyptian shipbuilders harvested cedar from the mountains of Lebanon and transported it up the Nile to a shipbuilding site, where the vessels were first assembled and then disassembled into travel-ready pieces that could be carried on a 10-day journey across about 100 miles of desert to the coast. “The logistics involved were phenomenal,” Bard says. “They’d have to carry fresh water and supplies for travel.”


Egyptian sailors wove rope (right) from halfa grass and may have used this rope bag (top) to haul cargo to and from the land of Punt about 3,500 years ago. Photos by Kathryn Bard


Trading places


During the 1990s, Bard and Fattovich had conducted a 10-year excavation near Aksum, Ethiopia, where they found evidence of a previously unknown period in African civilization. But when war broke out along the Eritrean border in 1998, they decided to relocate to the Egyptian coastline. The team went first to Wadi Gawasis in 2001 to investigate “the other end of Red Sea trade,” Bard says.


Fattovich selected Wadi Gawasis because in the 1970s an Egyptian archaeologist had identified it as the likely location of the ancient seaport of Saaw, known from texts as the departure point for expeditions to Punt. The team limits its excavation to the six weeks between semesters each winter, avoiding the extreme heat and humidity during the summer.


While Bard is thrilled by the recent cave discoveries, she notes that they have only begun to discover the secrets of Wadi Gawasis. “I’m sure there’s at least one other cave we haven’t excavated yet,” she says. “There may be many more. And we’ve only just cleared out the entrance to the large cave, and it’s enormous. We have years’ more work to do there.”


When she returns next December, she will be joined by a researcher who will use ground-penetrating radar to determine if there are more caves and to estimate how far back the known caves extend. An engineer will help the team support the partially collapsed ceilings in some of the caves. “It was the find of a lifetime,” Bard says, “and there’s much more to discover there.”



Dr Cameron of Tura finds a 2300-year-old shroud

Wednesday, 16 March 2005


A team coordinated by Tura Beach archaeologist Dr Judith Cameron has discovered and preserved the oldest complete shroud found in Southeast Asia, dating back some 2,300 years to the Bronze Age Dongson culture.


The cloth was found in a wooden boat-shaped coffin covered by thick black mud in a canal in the Red River plains area of Vietnam in December last year.


In what has been hailed as a major find, team leader Professor Peter Bellwood of the Australian National University said that the boat coffin - unearthed at Dong Xa, 50km southeast of Hanoi - was possibly also the oldest in Southeast Asia.


But Dr Cameron, who is Australia's only textile archaeologist, said that the shroud was the primary artifact and the major target of the research team.


"We targeted water-logged sites because the best places to find perfectly preserved materials is in those areas or in deserts," she said.


But finding the material is only part of the battle.


"Old cloths found previously have been lost when exposed to light," she said.


Dr Cameron, also of the ANU, is working under a three-year Australian Research Council grant in collaboration with the National Museum of Australia to study archaeological textiles and improve laboratory conservation techniques in Vietnam.


In an expedition which had something of a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel about it, her team of two Australian and two Vietnamese archaeologists and four materials conservators from the museum started out using ground penetrating radar but found it would not work in the thick mud.


They then decided to drain one of the irrigation canals where local villagers had recently found a large Dongson era drum.


"This required government approval and we were given only 24 hours to complete the exercise," she said.


"After walking up and down the canal watching the water drain from it, we saw a coffin protruding.


"We excavated using labourers hired from among the local villagers and had a huge group of Vietnamese spectators looking on.


"When the excavation was completed, the coffin was taken to Hung Yen provincial museum by truck."


Her team blacked out the room and using only controlled lighting took several days, working 10 hours a day, to remove the soil from the cloth with small trowels and paint brushes.


"Heat and light have a devastating effect on organic material which has been hidden away for 2000 years," Dr Cameron said.


They found a bark lid over the coffin, which contained the body of an adult male.


Covering the body was the complete shroud measuring 2281mm by 637mm.


Dr Cameron said the shroud had been placed in a freezer in Hanoi for interim preservation until her team can return to Vietnam in July.


"Nothing like this has been done before in Southeast Asia. Conservators do not normally go on excavations with archaeologists," she said.


"We have the only complete shroud found in Southeast Asia.


"Our expedition was called the Dongson Textile Project and its main aim was to find textiles.


"The coffin itself is also important and it is being preserved in a polyethylene glycol solution," she said.


"It also contained Chinese coins from around 200-300BC, some glass beads, a pottery jar at the head of the corpse and inside it a lacquer bowl, but the shroud is the primary artifact."


Dr Cameron said the Dongson people are revered by the Vietnamese as the beginning of the ancient Viet race.


They are believed to have settled the Red River Delta area around 700 BC.


"It is a very onerous responsibility to ensure we do not damage such precious cultural material," she said.


"The shroud is very rare and the most essential thing is to make sure we don't lose it."


Dr Cameron said that the cloth was so well preserved because oxygen in the atmosphere had not been able to penetrate the dense black clay/mud in which it was found.


Other shrouds of similar age that have been found in other places have disintegrated within hours through a process known as chemoluminosence.


Dr Cameron said she had put the age of the shroud at about 2,300 years and described it as having the thickness of linen - about 2/3mm.


The team also excavated a further 20 secondary burials from the same Dongson period which contained many more examples of cloth, embroidery, weaves and dyes used in prehistoric times.


She said prehistoric textiles take on the colour of the soils in which they are found, but after washing some of the samples, dyed fragments were found.


Dr Cameron said the discovery had made her team celebrities in Vietnam.


"We were on national television and in the newspapers and featured at a Dongson culture conference," she said.


Dr Cameron said the decision to be made when they returned to Vietnam was whether to proceed any further with investigation of the shroud or to preserve it as an exhibit.


"I will be going back for two weeks this month to check on its condition and then in July with the museum conservators when we get our new round of funding," she said.


"There could potentially be many more prehistoric textiles at waterlogged sites in the area," she said.


"The question is how much more material can we handle. There are so many canals that have not yet been investigated."


Dr Cameron said the shroud and other pieces of cloth found at Dong Xa appear to have been made from bast fibres such as ramie or hemp and the matting underneath the shroud to have been made from seagrass (sedge).


"Women produced the cloth," she said. "We know that because the production tools are found only in women's graves."


Dr Cameron said she first went to Vietnam seven years ago to look for cloth production tools and it had taken several years to gain the confidence and acceptance of her Vietnamese colleagues, resulting in this first Vietnam-Australia collaboration of its kind.


She said that while debate continues on the origins of the Dongson people, her view is that the Dognson groups in Vietnam were inextricably linked to Bronze Age groups from the area of South China now known as Yunnan and Guangdong.



Bronze Age perfume 'discovered' 

By Tabitha Morgan, BBC News, Nicosia 


Scented oils commanded high prices in the ancient world

A team of Italian archaeologists working in Cyprus believe they have discovered the site of an ancient perfume factory from the Bronze Age.


The 4,000-year-old perfumery is thought to have manufactured fragrances for export across the Eastern Mediterranean.


The factory is thought to have formed part of a complex of buildings - a sort of Bronze Age industrial estate.


It included an olive press, a winery and a copper smelting works.


Scientists have reconstituted 12 different perfumes from traces of scents found in dozens of clay bottles at the site.


So far they have extracted essences of laurel, cinnamon and myrtle - all likely to have been derived from local plants, and then mixed with olive oil.


The factory is thought to have been part of a complex


The scale of the site and the presence of huge 500-litre oil storage jars suggests it was the centre of a prosperous export business.


It is thought that Crete may have been the ancient world's main market for Cyprus perfume.


Scented oils were used extensively for religious ceremonies and funerary rites and often commanded very high prices.


According to the Roman historian, Pliny, Cyprus was the earliest source of some of the most popular perfumes in the ancient world.


Archaeologists believe that the earthquake which destroyed the complex also played a part in preserving many of its artefacts.



Bronze Age droppings reveal health of ancients



ARCHAEOLOGISTS have found rare 3000-year-old human fossilised droppings revealing the healthy diet of Scotland's ancient inhabitants.

Work on a Bronze Age farmhouse in Catpund, Shetland, has unearthed the coprolites, which give clues on the population, health and wealth distribution of the former islanders.

The research has provided data on prehistoric diseases and may shed more light on the environments and evolution of plants and animals.

Beverley Ballin Smith, archaeological project manager at Glasgow University, said: "The inhabitants appeared to be cultivating a little enclosure around the house with grain. This was probably part of their diet alongside meat and fish.

"They would have had mainly sheep but it's possible they had cows or goats. They would have had the best diet possible in that type of environment, with plenty of roughage and fibre."

She added: "It is very rare to find coprolites on archaeological sites, but in the northern isles of Scotland there can be excellent preservation."



Evidence of Confederations of Cuban Indigenous Peoples Found


Havana, Mar 19 (Prensa Latina) Cuban archaeologists have found evidence of the existence of chieftainships and confederations of indigenous peoples in the center of Cuba.


Jorge Calvera, general director of the archaeological project Los Buchillones, said that the evidence located in four zones of the territories of the central provinces of Ciego de Avila and Camaguey showed a high concentration of well-defined nuclei, close together, with similarities between their art pieces, and style.


Up until now, chieftainships amongst the Taino indians, the most advanced Cuban indigenous group before the arrival of the Spaniards, had not been delimited, as archaeological evidence to date led specialists to think that ancient inhabitants of Cuba lived only in small, and independent, settlements, and that no large villages had existed.



The new conclusions result from investigations made for 25 years under the fostering and leadership of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, and the Cuban Ministry for Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA).


The remains of rooms detected correspond to villages, in some cases with 8 cabins minimum, and in others up to 30, Jorge Calvera informed.


After studying the concentration zones, similarities between the pieces found in neighbouring places suggest the pieces are associated with different chieftainships to ensure successful coexistence in common territory.


According to investigations in the Antilles, a chieftainship was formed by a group of settlements united by religious links, or some other kind of alliance, which although independent, could also join with other settlements and create confederations to resolve issues within a greater territorial area.




Medieval friary remains reburied 


The skeletons were discovered on the site of a new development

The remains of 20 followers of St Francis of Assisi, discovered at a new development in Glasgow, have been reburied at a cemetery in the city.


Archaeologists unearthed the site of the city's original Franciscan friary, established in 1476, on the site of the City Science complex in High Street.


The remains were reinterred after a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Mario Conti at St Andrew's Cathedral.


The two caskets were then taken to the Southern Necropolis in the Gorbals.


Vows of chastity


St Francis, the founder of the Franciscan order, was born in the Italian city of Assisi in 1181.


He intended that the friars should lead a way of life modelled on Christ's apostles.


Vows of chastity, obedience and above all poverty were taken by the friars.


Glasgow's first Franciscan friary was confirmed by Pope Sixtus IV in 1476 and destroyed during the Reformation just over 80 years later.


A new development is being built on the site


The destruction of the friary began in 1559 and was completed by the Duke of Chatelherault and the Earl of Argyle the following year.


The identity of those buried in the cloister of the friary will never be known as archive material was destroyed.


The remains discovered on the friary site show that 12 skeletons were male, of slight build, and seven were female.


Insufficient remains were discovered to tell the gender of the final skeleton.


Their burial within the hallowed ground of the friary cloister is a clear indication that these were individuals closely associated with the Franciscan Order.


The men, if not actually friars, may well have been benefactors whose contributions to the friary had entitled them to the privilege of burial within the friary precincts.


Residential quarter


Glasgow's Lord Provost, Liz Cameron, said: "This is a profoundly symbolic journey.


"These men and women saw the evolution of the city through one of its most turbulent periods.


"It is entirely fitting that, as Glasgow moves forward, we should recognise the contribution of our forebears and respect their memory."


Scottish Enterprise Glasgow (SEG) is developing the site at High Street as a high-tech business and residential quarter.


A new garden commemorating the site of the Franciscan friary will be built as part of the development.


A special site has been prepared and re-landscaped within the Southern Necropolis by Glasgow City Council.